While many countries’ fight against the coronavirus pandemic is already being challenged by vaccine shortages and weak healthcare infrastructure, doubts about the available vaccines in Africa are also slowing down inoculation, which serves as another obstacle to reducing the number of new cases.
When Edith Serem received her COVID-19 vaccination last month at a Nairobi hospital where she works as a doctor, nurses jokingly warned that she could start speaking a foreign language.
Serem said some colleagues received the AstraZeneca shot after following her closely for several days to see if she was okay, but others refused, still wary of any side effects.
Health experts worry that general skepticism about taking the relatively small number of doses that African countries have struggled to obtain could prolong a pandemic that has already killed more than 3.3 million people worldwide.
“I’m not an anti-wax … I have my children vaccinated updated with everything out there, but this one? I’m not comfortable,” said a doctor in Kenya, who refused to be named as she was not entitled to speak with media.
“If there are no data on long-term effects, we are all guinea pigs. What happens ten years after this vaccine?”
So-called vaccine doubt is a global phenomenon. France and the United States are struggling with it, and skepticism is growing in some Asian countries such as Japan.
In Africa, health experts say a combination of warnings about possible rare blood clots, poor management of vaccines by some leaders and mixed messages during expiry dates have all contributed to the slow rollout across the continent.
COVID-19 has also not affected Africa’s 1.3 billion people to the extent that it has ravaged some countries in Europe, Brazil, the United States and India, leaving some on the continent in doubt about the severity of the disease.
The official death toll in Africa is now 121,000, lower than the UK alone.
Last week, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), John Nkengasong, again urged citizens to stay alert and called India’s COVID-19 disaster an alarm clock.
Angry and suspicious
While Ghana and Rwanda have almost completed the administration of the doses they received last month, the rollout in some countries is so slow that it can take years to use the limited shots they have, let alone inoculate their adult populations.
Kenya, for example, began vaccinating 400,000 frontline health workers and other key workers in early March after receiving more than one million doses of AstraZeneca from the global vaccine distribution system COVAX.
By April 25, Kenya had vaccinated only 152,700 health workers, according to the Ministry of Health.
Chibanzi Mwachonda, head of Kenya’s leading medical union, said the government had now offered the doses to a greater extent due to the slow uptake of the vaccines, which the UN says will expire on June 28.
Health workers were already angry and suspicious because the government had failed to provide adequate protective equipment, Mwachonda said. Many now felt that the government had not adequately addressed concerns about possible side effects, he said.
Kenya’s Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, received its first shipment of 3.92 million AstraZeneca shots on March 2. By April 23, just over 1.15 million doses had been administered.
At that rate, it could take until mid-August to use the doses and almost a decade to vaccinate the adult population. The shots expire on July 9, a government official said.
Chika Offor, founder of the Vaccine Network for Disease Control Group in Abuja, said the decision by some European governments to restrict or stop using AstraZeneca shots had exacerbated Nigerian fears.
On the Ivory Coast, vaccination centers have been quieter than expected, raising fears that the doses will be left unused when they expire in June, two health workers at the National Institute of Public Hygiene told Reuters.
The West African country vaccinated 105,110 people between March 1 and April 21 after receiving a first shipment of 504,000 doses. At that rate, it would take more than two years to use the 1.7 million doses it has so far ordered from COVAX.
The health workers said that some centers in Abobo, a suburb of the capital Abidjan, only got 20 people a day to shoot. In Treichville, a densely populated area of the city, Reuters saw health workers sitting idle without patients.
Joseph Benie, director of the Hygiene Institute, said they had issued public statements about the safety of the vaccine.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, received 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca from COVAX in early March.
It delayed the rollout after several European countries stopped the vaccine to examine rare blood clots, but ten days after its inoculation operation began, only 1,300 people in a country of 85 million had been shot.
The government is now returning 1.3 million doses to COVAX before they expire.
Africa CDC’s Nkengasong said the slow uptake in the Congo did not surprise him as an Africa CDC survey showed that only 60% of Congolese wanted the vaccine compared to 90% of Ethiopians.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa CDC have repeatedly recommended that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks.
Still, some African leaders have condemned the shootings, including Tanzania’s recently deceased president, Nigerian state governors and the head of a South African nurses’ association.
Mixed announcements about the vaccine’s expiry date have increased the confusion.
The WHO and Africa CDC urged African countries not to waste donated vaccines after Malawi said it would destroy more than 16,000 doses of AstraZeneca by April 13.
Nkengasong said an analysis by the Serum Institute of India, which made the doses, showed that they could be used until July 13 – but WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti said they should be stored until more information was available.
“The development of the Haphazard vaccine is dangerous,” said Irungu Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya. “Public confusion at this time is really feeding into vaccine skepticism.”